Advice for the Job Season: Interviewing

Heather Cox Richardson

My primary advice for interviewing is to tell candidates that THE SEARCH COMMITTEE MEMBERS WANT YOU TO DO WELL!!! Please, please hear that. It is excruciating to have candidates treat an interview like a comprehensive exam before hostile examiners.

I promise you, we did not just slog through hundreds of pages of recommendation letters and your prose, pick you out of hundreds of applicants, fly to some god-forsaken icy city, and swill cheap coffee and bagels in a cold hotel room waiting for you because we are eager to humiliate you. While it is possible that there is someone in that room who doesn’t like your work, the majority of the committee has gone to the mat to get you onto the interview list, and those search committee members are secretly praying that you will hit a home run. They are on your side.

You may well not know which members those are, though, so do not make any assumptions about who are your friends and who are potential enemies on a committee. Treat everyone as interested colleagues. Even the old jerk in the corner asking impossible questions might be on your side. And if not, the chances are good that everyone else in the room recognizes that s/he’s an old curmudgeon, and are hoping that you will handle her/him with aplomb.
The committee members want you to do well, so help them out. Almost certainly there will be faculty members from different fields in the room who only know your field generally. So explain immediately what you do, and why it is important to someone outside your specialty. Do not make them plead with you to articulate why what you do is significant. (Clearly, they think it is, or they would not have brought you in for an interview. They are trying to see how well you can articulate historical concepts.)

Then listen to their questions. They are trying to draw you out, to see what inspires you, to see what kind of a colleague you will be. If someone is trying to trip you up, others will be trying to toss you softballs. (If that fighting is obvious, you should have real reservations about joining the department, by the way.) Work with them collaboratively as a colleague to create a conversation, not as a student being examined. As they are interviewing you, you are interviewing them. Do they get along? Are they smart? Do they seem to have a sense of humor? Are they people you would like to see in the hallways for the next 20 years? Sometimes an interview tells you that you do not want the job no matter how badly you think you need it; listen to that intuition.

However the interview goes, do not overthink it afterward. So you forgot your coat and had to go back: no one cares. So you could have articulated something better: that happens. So you drew a blank when someone asked you something that should have been obvious: we may not even have noticed. We all recognize that the interview is a strange process and that it’s rare for it to go so brilliantly everyone in the room is blown away.

Finally, do not assume that because you did not get an on-campus interview that you interviewed badly or that your work is somehow less worthy than those who did. The academic pool right now is extraordinarily strong. It’s not uncommon for committees to receive 200-300 applications for an assistant-level post.  Search committees have to make choices by splitting hairs. When you have to cut a pool from a dozen or so candidates to 3, some of the ones who don’t make the cut could just have easily have made it.  The fact that you got an interview at all says that your work impressed enough members of a search committee for them to invest a significant amount of time and effort into it and into you. That’s itself a statement of support.